Posts Tagged ‘Theatre Royal Drury Lane’

A Guest Post by Robert Cox.

The Life of the Inimitable Mrs Jordan

“Thank you my dear, for twenty years of love, happiness, financial support and ten children – now kindly leave the stage!”

200 years ago last year (2016) Dora Jordan died in poverty in St Cloud, Paris, aged 54. Her death followed an incredible life from impoverished Irish actress to greatly loved and admired celebrity, causing ‘Jordan-mania’ as one contemporary newspaper described her impact on the British public. She was the best-loved and greatest comedy actress of her day, alongside the acclaimed Mrs Siddons.


Mrs  Jordan as Hypolita, 1791, after Hoppner. British Library.

As a star of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Dora caught the attention of the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV, and for twenty years they lived and loved together as ‘husband and wife’ at Bushy House, Richmond Park. During all these years she maintained a furious pace on the theatre circuit whilst giving birth to ten children by William, acting throughout her pregnancies – often feeding the latest new arrival between scenes.

So why did she die penniless and alone – and how is her name virtually unknown?
Quite simple. This devoted hard-working mother who ‘kept’ her wasteful man for most of their twenty years together was ultimately betrayed by the Royal Family and their ruthless advisers.

This is nothing unusual you may think, but how could it be that Dora Jordan (born Dorothea Bland), until quite recently, failed to appear in the official history of the theatre where she was greatly acclaimed as actress and singer in roles from Shakespeare to farce, and where she was close friends with the theatre’s owners as well as major public figures of her day?

In 1994, Claire Tomalin’s brilliantly researched book, “Mrs Jordan’s Profession”, told for the first time the complete story of Dora Jordan’s rise from poverty in Ireland to the pinnacle of fame, fortune and adoration on the London stage. Dora was The Duchess of Drury Lane for 30 years – a testimony to her sheer hard work, enchanting personality and a comic talent second to none. A lady whose infinite goodness contrasts starkly with the deeds of those responsible for her wholly avoidable downfall. The fact that she and the Duke were so close – genuine soul mates as evident from the hundreds of letters they exchanged – makes her story all the more heart-breaking and the actions of royalty all the more contemptable. A poignancy resonating sharply with more recent events involving royal betrayal, as Michael Arditti writes of the biography, “Enthralling … brilliantly brings to life a saga in which the 19th century House of Hanover foreshadows the House of Windsor”.

The first person to attempt a biography of Dora was Elizabeth Inchbald – a contemporary and friend – but she lost her nerve and destroyed her manuscript on the advice of her confessor. For she was a Roman Catholic, and this was 1821.

In June 1830 the Duke of Clarence, son of George III, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself King of England. He was 64 and with his older brother George IV on the throne, had imagined seeing out his days as he’d spent most of his life – with no real responsibility or job. But overnight, King George’s sudden death turned that prospect on its head.

Soon after he took the throne, as King William IV, he was seized with remorse at the way he’d treated Dora. She had been dead for 15 years but one of the new king’s first acts was to commission a statue of her by England’s leading sculptor, Francis Chantrey, soon to be Sir Francis. Lost or forgotten for nearly 200 years, ironically the statue now rests where Dora was never invited, at Buckingham Palace. Not invited because of her wrong blood. A successor to the crown was not allowed to marry a commoner – his wife had to have blue blood. But it was the theatre, not royalty, that pumped through Dora’s heart.

Thankfully Dora Jordan has now been restored to her rightful place in the history of English theatre. Her name now echoes through the corridors and corners of The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where once her beautiful voice and unique talent graced the stage and thrilled audiences for thirty long, extraordinary years. She is in the theatre’s Souvenir Brochure, talked about in the highly entertaining guided tours, and even on some occasions brought alive in lavish costume beneath an abundance of hair, laughing and lovely as ever she was.

Finally, the words of one of Dora’s contemporary admirers, Leigh Hunt – critic, poet and essayist – speaking straight from the heart after her tragic passing.

“The way she would take a friend by the cheek and kiss her, or make up a quarrel with a lover, or coax a guardian into good humour, or sing (without accompaniment) … trusting as she had the right to do, to the sole effect of her sweet, mellow and loving voice – the reader will pardon me, but tears of pleasure and regret come into my eyes at the recollection, as if she personified whatsoever was happy at that period of life, and which has gone … like herself.”
Robert Cox (February 2017)

More on Dora Jordan here.


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sheridanTwo hundred years ago today, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)- a titan of the London theatre – died in  poverty at home in Saville Row.

Things didn’t go well for him after his Theatre Royal Drury Lane burned down in 1809 and he lost his seat in Parliament in 1812 after 32 years an MP.

Sheridan it was who gave us the malapropism after Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals (1775), one of the great comic characters of English drama.

This great man was born in Dublin in 1751. His parents moved to London when he was young and sent him to Harrow school and then further education privately. He spent time at Middle Temple but hankered for a career in the theatre in which there was a strong family background. This was the London of David Garrick and Samuel Foote – it was a very exciting time for the stage.

Success came quite quickly with The Rivals – initially badly received but transformed spectacularly and almost instantaneously with a rewrite and a new cast. Sheridan epitomised the can-do attitude of the Georgian period. There followed School for Scandal in 1777. Aged 26, the playwright had produced two of the great plays of the English canon. Many other productions followed.

Between 1778 and 1780, Sheridan bought by instalments the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from Garrick. Then as now, it was the greatest of all London theatres. The building was thought to have been designed by Wren (we now know it wasn’t, the architect remains unknown), but the reputation of London’s great architect paled besides Sheridan’s ambition and vision. He tore it down and built an even bigger building in 1794 with all the latest fire safety features (actually laid down by recent law). This was the one which burned down in 1809, leaving Sheridan in the street – glass in hand – to remark laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

Sheridan’s other great interest was politics. As with the theatre, he engaged in it with no half-measures, taking his seat at Westminster in 1780. Already a famous man about town, he was soon at the heart of the Foxite Whigs, the circle of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales himself. With Fox, Burke and others, he vigorously sought the prosecution and impeachment of Warren Hastings, formerly governor-general of Bengal. In pursuit of this, he stood up in court and spoke for several days, finally collapsing theatrically back into his seat, uttering: “My Lords, I am done!”. And so was Hastings. It was a trial which took 148 days over seven years. Chilcot is by no means new.

Sheridan’s fame coincided with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence et al, so it’s perhaps surprising that there are relatively few likenesses of him. His face was markedly disfigured from the second of two duels he had in 1772 aged just 21. They were against a thuggish army captain, one Captain Mathews. It all resulted from Sheridan rescuing and eloping to France with a 17 year old girl whom the married Mathews had been pestering. Brave and physically courageous. Yet another reason to love Sheridan. He went on to marry Eliza Linley. They were both spectacularly unfaithful to each other, but stuck together.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Brave, quixotic, talented, ambitious. A great man and a great Londoner, who typified a great age. He is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and today we remember him.

Good coverage on Wikipedia and an even better entry if you can access by subscription the Dictionary of National Biography.

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On this day in 1809, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was destroyed by fire. Theatres were always burning down, so nothing really unusual in fact. What made this conflagration different, is the involvement of the magnificent Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Dublin-born, Harrow-educated Sheridan is one of my favourite Londoners. A duellist, MP, playwright, impresario and much besides, he obtained full ownership of Drury Lane in 1778. In 1791 he demolished the 120 year old building which had opened in 1674 (replacing the short-lived 1663 original), and built a fabulous modern theatre more to his liking and ambition. Designed by Henry Holland, it opened in 1794, apparently with the latest fire-prevention features. Here is Rowlandson and Pugin’s depiction of its interior, only a year before disaster struck.

Sheridan himself witnessed the destruction of his beloved theatre from the street, glass of wine in hand, remarking laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

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John RichAs the panto season approaches, we remember the man credited with inventing the genre: theatre manager, impresario and performer, John Rich (1692 – 1761). He also opened the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on this day in 1732.

Rich had a lucky start on the London theatre scene, such as it was, inheriting from his father a royal patent to run a theatre, the privilege initially granted to Sir William Davenant by Charles II. But it wasn’t plain sailing, for he lacked an actual theatre, the building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields being still incomplete. It opened in 1714, but the early years were beset with financial problems. He was even forced to lease out his own theatre for a few years.

From 1717 right though the 1720s, Rich staged comic dance and drama mainly based on commedia dell’arte, himself constantly performing and building his reputation, almost inevitably in a harlequin role. His first blockbuster came in 1728 with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the proceeds of which largely financed his new theatre, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, which opened on 7 December 1732. He engaged some of the leading landscape painters of the day – notably George Lambert – to paint the scenery.

john rich, impresario

John Rich, comic dancing in harlequin garb.

From 1747, Rich’s biggest rival was David Garrick at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and to a lesser extent Samuel Foote’s theatre in the Haymarket, whose output was often brilliant but just as often patchy and unapologetically political. The two titans of the Georgian stage locked theatrical horns throughout for the next decade, with Rich supplying more populist pantomime fare which also introduced ground breaking special effects, though Shakespeare was by no means ignored. Yet he drew sniffy criticism and even enmity from more literary London types such as Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding and Garrick himself. They dismissed him as vulgar, unlettered, even illiterate.

But his friends and supporters included the likes of Hogarth, Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes. These were some of the original members of an early iteration of the Beefsteak Club, which Rich had founded and which in time even drew royal patronage through the person of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Not bad, he can’t have been the boor as portrayed by his detractors. Rich was also popular among his players for paying them promptly and treating them fairly, even supporting destitute retired actors. So all-in-all, a major figure in the story of London theatre, a mover, a shaker and all round good egg. John Rich.

Main Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required).

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